Holy heck the HOMONYMS

Now that I’m marching into more vocabulary words, I’m started to see the vast amount of homonyms there really are in Japanese (Ex. What does じんこう mean to you? :slight_smile: ). I’m starting to see why kanji is so vital to the language. It seems like a monumental task to keep the vocab straight without relying on them, as in verbal speech, yet a whole nation seems to have managed it just fine.

Perhaps this will sort itself out as I learn, but to people who are further along in their studies I’m wondering: how do you keep all the words straight? Particularly when having conversations, listening to video/audio tracks, or consuming content written in hiragana (I once heard Pokemon has a no-kanji setting to be more kid-friendly).
Obviously context helps you determine which word they mean, though that’s going to require even more Japanese knowledge to figure out. Then again, maybe it’s less common a problem than I fear and the issue doesn’t arise to cause comprehension problems too frequently.

What’s your take on the issue, and how do you deal with it in kanji-less situations?

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In kanji less situations use context. I’m still on Level 3 but with my research I learned context is huge in Japanese.

A friend of mine described this perfectly.
Compare it to english, we have the word: Crown
It could be the crown of a tree,
the crown of a tooth,
the summit of a mountain,
the concept of “the crown” as the power the imperial seat holds
in my native language crown is also the name of our currency.

As a new speaker of english this would probably also be highly confusing, it’s all about the context wherein the word is used.
In other words, it’s all about context, and above you can see concrete examples of this already existing in your own language.
hope this helps.


Reading without kanji is still pretty tricky for me, but you get used to it as you listen to the language more and you begin to know what words/types of words to expect. The biggest thing in conversations is context. Usually, I think you’ll have the opposite problem of even forgetting the homonyms even exist as words are used in context. This is a huge disadvantage to you because you won’t be ready to lay down sick puns to impress your Japanese friends.

Also, pitch accent sometimes differentiates homonyms (so are they really homonyms?). For example, ブドウ as “grapes” and 武道 (martial arts) have different pitch patterns. This is a great way to trap your friends. You can ask them if they like ブドウ, and then when they say yes, switch up the pitch accent and ask them what kind of 武道 they participate in :smiley:

Also, bamboo sword is 竹刀・しない so be ready to say things like: 竹刀でしないで下さい。(Again, the pitch between 竹刀 and the negative of する are different).


Context is king. It will be what informs you the most, as others have said.

In situations where the language is spoken, once you get to a point where you can hear it, pitch accent can inform you as well (though different dialects do have different pitch accents sometimes). 雨 sounds different than 飴.

For Pokemon specifically, they often actually use spaces to break up some of the words and make it easier to differentiate what’s being said. This is done regardless of kanji or hiragana setting.

Edit: Here is the same line (unfinished; it goes across two lines) in Pokemon Y with the kanji setting and the hiragana setting. You can see how there are spaces breaking up words to make the sentence easier to parse. Forgive the photo quality. I don’t have a capture card or anything for my 3DS, so smartphone photo of a screen it is. :sweat_smile:


The problem with this example is that the word “crown” here has the exact same meaning in all cases but is being used metaphorically in a variety of different ways. It’s easier to identify metaphorical usages of a word knowing its base meaning than to know which meaning of a true homonym to use.

Many Japanese homonyms are actually different words with different Chinese origins that happen to sound the same by chance because of the way they were simplified.


Also, the word “run” apparently has 645 definitions.

Thank god こうしょう only has 27 different meanings :laughing:


I agree with this. Better English examples would probably be:

I vs Eye

Their, They’re, There

Your vs You’re

Herd vs Heard

Plus a bunch more that I can’t even think of right now.


There are of course, times when sound of a vocabulary alone is enough for the meaning. So, I often say, don’t worry about the Kanji too much, but the Kanji may (or may not) be explanatory, in retrospect.

I think any language is hard, especially with “sayings”. Then some words have a bunch of different meanings and contexts.

You would just have to get a craaaaaapppp load of exposure to it. It’s really hard to grasp certain scenarios.

You need context on the background of that sentence for you to realize what kind of definition is being used for that specific word (that would have 27 meanings)

:slight_smile: hopefully this helps

(IMO, his “crown” example works fine, regardless of how exact it is. We distinguish similar or exact sounding words constantly by context…)

Now that I’m level 17, I finally realize how ridiculous my original thinking was before starting Japanese: “Do I have to learn kanji? Can’t I just use all hiragana?” LOL. Now I hate it when things are in all hiragana. It’s a lot more work to decode the meanings! That second Pokemon subtitle is soooo much easier to read…


Same, for what it’s worth. I play with kanji on because it is a bit less taxing for me to read as well, and when using anime for immersion practice, I have JP subtitles on (using kanji, of course) so that I can, at a glance, check meaning if it isn’t immediately clear. I suspect that’s because I’m still learning, though, and that will be less necessary as time goes on (especially since my reading ability far outstrips my listening/speaking ability as of yet.)

I think I’ll still prefer reading with kanji to hiragana no matter how much time passes, though. :sweat_smile:


Isn’t that funny? I’m the exact same way. Years ago when I started I learned the absolute minimum amount of kanji necessary to get by. Now I realize how much I prefer to see kanji and how much more meaningful the language seems using it. It’s almost like kanji really is the bedrock of the language everything was built from! :sweat_smile:
Now that I understand that better I’m a little annoyed at myself and my old Genki guide for prioritizing in (what I now think is) that wrongheaded order, but hey, can’t stress about stuff you can’t change.

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No kidding! Thought at your level I wonder, any thoughts on if reading pure hiragana like in your example helps with understanding the language, I guess… phonetically? As in - helps you to do what were talking about above, that being to better parse those homonyms using context, to develop that more natural understanding of the language.
Maybe that’d be a rather futile exercise and you’d be better off just listening to audio/watching shows without subtitles, any thoughts?

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I think this is accurate, speaking from a time-use perspective. I do listen to podcasts and watch gaming streams for non-subtitled audio, and just go back when there is something that didn’t quite click for me. I also have a tutor on italki for conversation practice.

Listening and conversation gives similar results (have to differentiate between homonyms) without being as taxing as long kana strings, or taking as long. I can listen to and understand a spoken sentence faster than I can read and understand a kana-only sentence, in my experience. (Though I can read and understand a sentence using kanji a bit faster than listening, I would bet. Fewer characters to swap around in my head by mistake, and meaning at a glance from the kanji.) So purely from a “I only have so much time to learn in a day” standpoint, I’m not sure how much I would get out of the kana-reading practice.

It might be worth it to swap Pokemon over to that for a bit (with the spaces acting as training wheels in a way, since it requires slightly less focus to differentiate words) and see if I notice any improvement in my parsing speed after a while, though, especially since Pokemon is basically just a marginally-productive time waster when I don’t feel like doing real studies. :laughing:

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My first thought was 人口 since I probably see that most often. Could be 人工 but that’s usually a qualifier for something. Or maybe 人皇 if we’re watching a period drama and 沈香 if it’s a nature documentary.

It for sure can’t be 人孔 because Japanese people would just say マンホール instead. :wink:

The above is pretty much what goes on in my head. I use context clues to figure out the most likely one. It’s easier with speech though since pitch accent can sometimes help.


Here’s a few more from a similar thread from 2019 =D


OK. This last set of examples reminded me of one of the funniest standup routines I’ve ever seen. It’s from a non-English native who is confused by the use of the word, sh*t. The routine basically explains all the various nuances of it’s use from very positive to very negative, all while he’s pretending to have been baffled by the meanings. Hilarious and very apropos to the topic at hand. Of course it’s (very) slightly off-color humor, so be forewarned. ISMO | I Didn't Know Sh*t 💩💩💩 - YouTube


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